The ‘Mommy Dead End’?

A stay-at-home parenting stint needn’t toss a job applicant out of the running

By Dana Wilkie Jan 12, 2015
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There’s the “mommy track”—which refers to the diminishing opportunities afforded working women after becoming mothers. And then there’s the plight of those trying to re-enter the workforce after staying home to care for children—which might well be called the “mommy (or daddy) dead end.”

Women and men who try to restart their careers after spending years at home parenting often encounter interviewers skeptical that they’ve lost “the edge”—meaning the contacts, industry savvy and technical skills that one acquires while consistently employed.

Yet some HR experts argue that stay-at-home parenting actually imparts skills that prove valuable in the workplace, such as patience, persistence, creativity and reliability.

“Careers for men and women, parents or not, are no longer linear, and an accomplished woman who took a career detour to devote herself to motherhood can still be an incredibly valuable hire,” said Marisa Thalberg, founder of, a networking site for working mothers.

Matt Brosseau, chief technology officer and head recruiter at Instant Alliance, an HR staffing and consulting firm, noted that “there’s a level of patience and creative problem-solving you can gain only from dealing with a toddler.”

“When parenting, you are often forced to negotiate with someone who may not be reasonable, and that’s a good skill when dealing with unreasonable clients and others,” he said.

Stay-at-home fathers—as well as both men and women who remain home to care for aging parents—can encounter hiring bias, too. But most stay-at-home parents are women, those interviewed for this article noted. And they pointed out that hiring bias tends to be more pervasive toward a woman who stayed at home to raise children than it is, say, toward a woman who took a year off to care for a dying father. To some hiring managers, the former seems like a luxury, the latter like a necessity.

Thalberg acknowledged that interviewers are being practical when they question if a woman who’s been out of the workplace can get up to speed quickly enough to contribute to an organization. They must consider a company’s productivity and profits, and how much time and money it will take to reintroduce a new hire to an industry that may have evolved exponentially since she last earned a paycheck.

That said, Thalberg suggested that recruiters consider how well a stay-at-home mother presents her candidacy.

“A woman who has been out of the workplace for a while has to own the responsibility [in order] to be really smart in how she packages herself,” she said. “I would look for positive signals like, did she stay connected to the industry, or do any alternative work [such as] for civic or charitable organizations that demonstrates her ambition? Can she point to compelling examples from her past work life, and has she done her homework on the state of the business now, to seem ready and able to jump in and succeed?”

Employers should not assume that a candidate didn’t keep abreast of a field while remaining at home, Brosseau said.

“Sometimes [a candidate] can say, ‘I wasn’t actively working, but I was enrolled in college courses and have worked hard to keep my skills up to date.’ That person is probably worth talking to further.”

Ken Matos, senior director of research for the Families and Work Institute, said that if an applicant has been “reading the right reports and journal articles, they may be more caught up than someone who’s so consumed with the day-to-day grind that they don’t have a broad perspective” on industry trends.

The industry in which a stay-at-home parent seeks a job plays a big part in his or her prospects: Highly dynamic fields such as information technology, medicine or law may be much harder to assimilate into after years off the job than fields such as education or retail sales.

Consider two hypothetical candidates for an elementary school teaching position: one who’s been consistently employed but has just a couple years of experience in the classroom, the second with a decade of experience who took three years off to raise small children.

“If they had both been teaching for 10 years and one woman was four years out of the game, the [working teacher] would definitely be a higher caliber candidate,” Brosseau said. “But if we’re comparing the [stay-at-home parent] with someone less seasoned,” the former might be the better hire.

Said Matos: “There are jobs where, yeah, you may be out of touch, but you can probably get all the information you need back in a month or two. In that case, employers shouldn’t be holding people accountable for a detriment in skills that can be made up in the standard orientation period.”

But too often, Matos said, hiring managers may never learn about the skills a stay-at-home parent has acquired because they fear that discussing the candidate’s family situation may make them appear biased.

“I suspect a number of HR people say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about your family, because that opens the door for me potentially having discriminated against you,’ ” Matos said. “That makes it difficult for a returning parent to describe all the skills they’ve learned about people management and self-management. If you don’t talk about [the time spent at home], it becomes a hole in your resume, and recruiters are trained to see these holes as red flags. And so the candidate gets dropped right there.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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